Tag Archives: BJCC

Mixed bag

Not up to its location

Not up to its location

Yesterday the state’s team which currently controls the City school system announced the system’s longtime administrative headquarters, at Park Place and 20th Street North facing Linn Park (20th Street elevation, above) will be put up for sale. The offices are slated to move to a humbler location in the 6300 block of First Avenue North, in Woodlawn. This is great news, as this prime corner which faces the park–with City Hall, the main branch of the Public Library, and the Tutwiler Hotel as neighbors–deserves a different use, and preferably a different building. The modest, mid-1960’s design (which was already dated upon completion) was never beautiful to begin with. We’d like to see a larger, mixed-use building that injects new energy into the underused park. Parks surrounded chiefly by daytime -use government bureaucracies tend to not be so vibrant, and Linn Park is no exception.

Out of context

Out of context

The above view illustrates how the current building is out of sync with its densely developed, valuable surroundings.

Wrong in so many ways

Wrong in so many ways

Perhaps most egregious is the parking deck connected to the rear, which extends along 20th Street around Sixth Avenue North. Clad with blank concrete panels, with small slits affording grim views into a fluorescent garage, this portion of the site also needs to be completely rethought.

A step backward

A step backward

Headed south on 20th Street to Five Points South, Design Review Committee yesterday approved a new paint job and storefront renovation to The Break pool hall, the former Emily Shop (above, corner of 20th Street South and 10th Avenue). This was a longtime women’s clothing store featuring large display windows along two facades, including a curved glass display at the prominent corner (it closed in the mid-1990’s). The current owner has taken out the corner glass, and replaced it with cheap, painted plywood. Oddly, the Committee approved this unfortunate change.

Thank you Regions

Thank you Regions

Directly across 10th Avenue, a Regions Bank branch sits in an historic bank building–perhaps 15-20 years older than the Emily Shop–which exhibits the period vogue for corner glass (in this case chamfered rather than curved, above). The relative integrity of this facade contrasts considerably with the cheapness of The Break.

The display says it all

The display says it all

A close up (above) illustrates all the elements conspiring against us: the strange paint colors, the boarded-up corner, the tinted glass, the huge stock-design Miller beer poster. We don’t expect pool halls to be paragons of good taste or even welcoming. But like the Board of Education building, this isn’t the best use of a great corner.



Finally, the Committee gave conditional approval to the above graphic concept for temporary signage at the new Entertainment District–now dubbed “Uptown”–adjacent to the BJCC and new Westin Hotel. The signage will go in empty storefronts, and will come down once leased.

If you build it...

If you build it…

Above, the completed district infrastructure awaits the hotel opening next month. The empty storefronts are visible to either side of the freshly paved street. With 2 restaurants and a coffee shop announced so far, we’re awaiting more announcements in the coming weeks. Now that it’s about to open, we can only wish it success. More to come on this in January.

[thanks to bhamwiki for the Board of Ed skyline pic, and BJCC for the graphic concept]




More eats, and Design Review September 26

Reservations are recommended

The Dallas-based restaurant chain Texas de Brazil is bringing its grand all-you-can-eat steakhouse concept to downtown Birmingham, as reported by the Birmingham Business Journal this afternoon. It will open next year adjacent to the new Westin Hotel in the BJCC‘s entertainment district. This is the first of planned announcements for new tenants in the district.

In the meantime, below is the agenda for this week’s Design Review Committee meeting. Remember, the meetings are open to the public and take place at 7:30 AM at Auburn Urban Studio, 3rd Floor of Young and Vann Building, corner of 18th Street North and First Avenue downtown.

I.        Call to Order:  Minutes of the September 12, 2012 meeting.

II.        Name: Mr. Jason Robb

Site Address: 2504 Aberdeen Road

District:  Red Mountain Suburbs Local Historic

Requesting approval for: Renovations to existing residence (Painting existing brick, soffits, and fascia; installing new front doors; installing new front windows; installing front door pediment; installing columns and transoms around/over doors on the sides of the front entrance; and installing gas lanterns)

III.       Name: Mr. Mark Williams (Reliable Signs)

Site Address: 517 22nd Street, South, Iron City Live

District: Midtown

Requesting approval for: operating guidelines for sign

IV.       Name: Mr. Keith Rouss (Harbert Realty)

Site Address: Two North 20th

District: Birmingham Green

Requesting approval for: Roof top advertising sign

V.        Name:  Mr. Jared Pineda

Site Address:  18 Richard Arrington Jr., Blvd, North

District:  21st Street North

Requesting approval for:  Roofing samples

VI.       Name: Mr. Russ Walter

Site Address:  2805 3rd Avenue, South (Pittsburgh Paints)

District: Lakeview

Requesting approval for:  Sign

VII.     Name: Mr. Jerry Nelms (BJCC)

Site Address:  Richard Arrington Jr. Blvd between 22nd & 24th Street,

District:  Cultural

Requesting approval for:  Street improvements and parking

VIII.    Name: Mr. Jimmy Harvell (Larry Signs)

Site Address: 7737 1st Avenue, North (Quik Pawn Shop)

District:  East Lake

Requesting approval for:  Signage

IX.       Name: Ms. Sheila Chaffin (UAB)

Site Address: block between 5th & 6th Avenues and 11th & 12th Streets South

District: Midtown

Requesting approval for: Demolition and site restoration of the UAB Theater Storage temporary structure.

[thanks to Texas de Brazil for the pic]

More options

More foot traffic coming

The Paramount yogurt shop at the corner of 20th Street North and 2nd Avenue (above in an earlier incarnation) has started serving a full lunch menu in addition to their usual yogurt and sweets. Downtown needs more dining options across the spectrum, from lunch to dinner. We’re a lot better off than 10 years ago, but still have a long way to go.

A mix of high and low

A block down 2nd avenue at Richard Arrington Blvd. North, the former Tony’s Terrific hot dog stand (above) is being renovated into–according to the workmen–a new eating establishment, but we can’t confirm that. Many of us miss the hot dogs and chicken sandwiches that Tony Ippolito served here since 1980, following in a long tradition of (mainly Greek-American owned) hot dog stands that flourished around downtown. Today only a handful are left. Certainly the ornate Florentine Building deserves a new tenant so we’ll keep an eye out.

It’s either Subway, or Subway

Finally, over on Richard Arrington Blvd. North in the heart of the BJCC, the above scene was observed the other weekend: literally a line out the door of hungry lunch-goers dying to get into Subway sandwich shop. Why this overwhelming preference for Subway? It’s the only restaurant within easy walking distance of the convention halls (save those within the Sheraton Hotel itself, but none of those face the street or have a public presence whatsoever). This is part of the argument for the Entertainment District currently under construction, which would offer a variety of restaurants and other amenities adjacent to the convention area (although no leasing announcements have yet been made). As has been noted in these pages before, ideally the tenants would not just attract conventioneers, but also local residents and casual visitors: the mix needs to be right.

In the meantime, we hear rumors of more restaurateurs scouting for space downtown. We’re optimistic that the food (and foodie) landscape will expand considerably in the next few years, so hang tight.

[thanks to Birmingham Public Library for the Paramount photo]


Caution: sterility

Pop-up district

By now most of us are familiar with the planned Entertainment District currently rising east of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex; a night-time view is rendered above (see construction cam here). This blog has discussed the inherent risks with creating “districts” from scratch, and with single developers or entities calling the shots, as opposed to more organic neighborhoods that grow over time with multiple participants. A very interesting article in Salon takes a dim view of this type of development, and is worth a read and discussion of its points.

It fills up for New Years

The author, Will Doig, takes Victory Park in downtown Dallas, TX to task. For him this is an extreme example of how banal an instant district can be (the main plaza is pictured above).  A much bigger project than Birmingham’s (think billions instead of millions of dollars), it includes luxury apartment and condo towers, office space, a park, restaurants, retail, a W Hotel and the American Airlines Center (home to professional basketball and hockey, as well as a concert venue). It has all been built over the last 10 years.

But it’s not New Years yet

While the main plaza and other public areas fill up during game time, New Years, and other special events–the neighborhood is otherwise quiet, according to Doig: its overpriced chain restaurants drawing too few patrons, and a revolving door of retailers leaving sidewalks empty (above). Keep in mind that there is still much more development planned for Victory Park, so perhaps it’s too soon to judge. But it’s hard not to take seriously the criticism leveled by Doig about the lack of vitality in this type place.

Everyone’s inside looking at the art

Doig also describes the Dallas Arts District as a related, but distinct example of the pitfalls of “designated district” development. A massive 68 acres of prestigious fine and performing arts venues developed over the last 30 years, it includes many well-reviewed architectural works (including the Dallas Art Museum above by Edward Larrabee Barnes, the same architect who designed the last expansion of the Birmingham Museum of Art). While there is much to admire about the high quality streetscape materials and refined architecture, street life itself is muted: unless you’re walking from an art museum to a concert, there’s just not much to do. It’s a mono-cultural district that suffers from too much of a good thing.

Ah, organic growth

The counterpoint to these listless new districts for Doig is Kenmore Square in Boston, MA (above), whose slow growth over time has resulted in an eclectic, mixed-use neighborhood that feels perfectly suited to Fenway Park without being contrived. The famous Citgo sign is a microcosm of the argument: first erected in 1940, it became so beloved by neighbors and Red Sox fans that when it was dismantled as a tired eyesore in 1979, a huge public outcry led to its restoration. It’s just one more quirky layer of the neighborhood. Such a sign today would neither be allowed under city ordinances, nor particularly loved by the public: it would be too new, too crass.

Which brings us to a final point–when Kenmore Square was first built out and connected to Boston with a subway line 100 years ago, it probably had little of today’s charm. Our best neighborhoods often need time to grow, breathe, rejuvenate, go through cycles before we realize we love them. If the entertainment district is expanded, ties together successfully with our own art museum and CBD to the south, Norwood to the north, is connected to great transit, and finds the right retail mix–it may prove Doig wrong. Since we’re investing so much money and effort into the project, let’s hope so.

[thanks to Bayer Properties for the Entertainment District pic; ecrosstexas and payton chung for the Victory Park pics; tilton lane for the Dallas Arts District pic; henry han for the Kenmore Square pic]

13 months and counting

This morning’s Design Review Committee unanimously approved building and landscape design for Regions Field, the new downtown home of the Birmingham Barons baseball team (above, Virginia Williams with the Mayor’s office introduces the project).  Looking closely at the colored plan on the easel above, you can see the baseball diamond oriented for optimum home plate and spectator comfort (shade will fall across the stands at almost all times). In pink are the ancillary elements along the 1st Avenue South edge up top and the 14th Street edge to the left; their character was the subject of most of the Committee’s discussion.

As interactive and porous as possible

The main floor plan is shown above (Lead architect HKS and local partner GA Studio). Again, 1st Avenue South is across the top (with Railroad Park directly across the street), and 14th Street to the left (west). 16th Street is to the right (east), and 3rd Avenue at the bottom (south). The project takes up 4 square blocks–15th Street and 2nd Avenue are consumed. The main entry plaza is the corner of 14th and 1st Avenue; along 1st Avenue are a ticket office, Barons merchandise store, and ice-cream shop as you walk east towards B&A Warehouse. Those 3 elements will be open daily to the public (and can be entered from the sidewalk as well as from the interior), regardless of whether the Barons are playing. Along 14th Street is a wide landscaped plaza with tables and chairs, that again will be open to the public regardless of the day. There is a connector of landscape walks, green berms, and children’s playground running on the east around the field which will likewise be open to the public at all times as a promenade connecting UAB campus to the Railroad Park.

Still in need of finesse

As we’ve noted previously, in an ideal world this project, or part of it, would be located at least 1/2 a block south of 1st Avenue, to allow a good, solid street wall of mid-rise development to take advantage of views and real estate premiums afforded by Railroad Park to the north and Regions Field to the south. Given the situation on the ground, while the designers have done a good job aligning several public elements at the street edge–to activate the public realm–there are still large swathes of one story elements, blank walls, and open space as you move from west to east across 1st Avenue (above, moving from right to left). The Committee asked that the details of the ice cream shop be worked on so that it could help continue the energy of the western part of the building in a more layered, vibrant way. Vacant land just behind B&A Warehouse (far left above) is reserved for future development–both a Negro League Museum and others–and hopefully those will go some way to helping densify that corner of the site.

An active public realm

The concern is that the energy of Railroad Park (above, at 15th Street Skate Plaza) won’t be fully leveraged by the edge of Regions Field across the street. Again, given the reality of the siting, the designers have done a pretty good job of incorporating as much as they could–but a ticket office, merchandise shop, and ice cream parlor don’t equate to the potential of continuous mixed-use development with restaurants, shops, and multi-story residences facing the park. The good news is that the baseball park moving downtown is a huge plus; hopefully the surrounding blocks and future development on the site itself will go a long way towards alleviating the current concerns about the edge condition.  We can’t wait for the first game in April 2013.

And just a dozen blocks north...

Which brings us briefly to the other big downtown project underway, also on a fast-track–the BJCC entertainment district and new Westin hotel, above. Unlike the construction site for Regions Field, which is even now surrounded by curious pedestrians, housing, Midtown offices and mixed-use, UAB, and Children’s Hospital (all elements which point to an exciting new Parkside neighborhood), the BJCC site has almost no pedestrian traffic, is bounded by interstate ramps, the convention center, and blocks of empty land cleared for future development to the north. It’s easy to visualize Regions Field integrating into the surrounding fabric; at BJCC, the fear is without integration into the rest of downtown and up to Norwood, the project can’t reach its potential. Hopefully the City is working on these connections. I want to go seamlessly from a baseball game, to a restaurant in Parkside, then to get a beer down at the entertainment district–but right now, its unclear how that would happen.

Bringing it down in scale

Speaking of beer, approval was also granted this morning to Pale Eddie’s Pour House on the 2300 block of Second Avenue North, to extend their existing rear patio (fenced, above) almost to the alley. We welcome more outdoor space to enjoy a drink downtown, and remind ourselves that while the Westin and Regions Field are exciting, we need to keep nurturing our small, entrepreneurial businesses and places like Pale Eddie’s that help keep our city center unique. Cheers.


Finally 4 stars

230 count cotton is coming

Today the Design Review Committee gave the go ahead for foundation work to start for the new downtown Westin at the BJCC. Courtesy of Joseph Rabun of Rabun, Rasche, Rector, Reece Architects, we show you the design of the hotel exterior (note: these renderings will continue to change as the design develops).

Do we spy Chris Hastings to the right?

The exterior is planned as a mix of brick and Centria metal panels, a high quality architectural panel system. Above you see the planned covered terrace and seating for the “signature restaurant” to the right of the image–Chris Hastings of Hot and Hot Fish Club has announced he’s negotiating to run it.


As noted in this blog previously, the design has been revised so that not just the restaurant, but conference areas to the other end of the hotel open onto the street. Above you see the “storefront” articulation in the wing which houses the swimming pool on the roof. I’d prefer real stores to conference rooms/corridor space, but at least the scale of the wing is human.

Almost vegas

Last but not least, the second floor pool, surrounded by terraces, health club, and cabana bar. OK, it’s not exactly the Tower Suites pool at the Wynn Las Vegas, but it looks nicer than most other downtown hotel pools I can think of in town.

More on this project and the surrounding entertainment district as we get more info.

[by clicking on the images you can enlarge them]

[Thanks to Rabun Rasche for the renderings]

Checking in (2)

Variation on a theme

The News has written an article about the design refinement of the new Westin Hotel at the BJCC, noting the Mayor insisted the architects (Rabun Architects out of Atlanta) take the earlier design and improve it with “wow factor”. On this blog we’d noted earlier our disappointment with the bland, middle-of-the-road architecture first presented, and hoped for something more innovative, special, and welcoming to visitor and local alike. So we’re happy the Mayor insisted on refinement. But what about the result?

More red brick?

Above is the latest rendering the News posted from the architects, which looks extremely similar to the original shown some months ago, except the facade is now shown rendered in what appears to be red brick. The rendering angle itself is more flattering, emphasizing street-level glass and pedestrians on sidewalks. To answer the Mayor’s wish for a blend of “traditional and contemporary styles”, it also appears the low one story wing in the foreground (with swimming pool on its roof) has been configured as a traditional commercial storefront facade, while the main hotel itself is more “contemporary”.

Without seeing the design for the adjacent entertainment district (designed by local architect Fred Keith of Keith Architecture) it’s impossible to say, but my guess is those traditional storefronts are designed to complement Keith’s district across the street. Rabun is not known for edgy, high-design work. Their corporate hotel clients demand clean, safe, often predictable design. It’s easier to look at this project as a necessary addition of crucially needed rooms near the BJCC, rather than our only chance to have a truly “signature” hotel downtown. I’m confident that chance will come soon, but for now it looks like this project will be an unremarkable 4-star hotel design. Let’s hope the restaurant, public spaces–and the surrounding district of shops, restaurants, and bars–will be as thoughtfully laid out as possible. Perhaps the design won’t win national awards. But with the right mix of tenants it could still prove a solid success for the BJCC, downtown, and the adjacent northern neighborhoods. What’s key is trying to integrate the new construction into the existing downtown and Norwood. If this becomes more than just a BJCC-centric project, and reaches out to surrounding neighborhoods, then we’ve accomplished something.

Better near the park

Which brings us to a final note on the proposed new downtown baseball park for the Barons (concept rendering above). The Birmingham Business Journal showed results of an online poll where the majority of all respondents wanted a new ballpark near Railroad Park. Coming a very distant second was the BJCC area. In my opinion, there is much more opportunity for leveraged redevelopment and mixed-use in the Railroad Park area, than near the BJCC. The proximity of the new park, UAB, downtown residences, and the blocks of old warehouses are more promising than the emptied out land by the BJCC, not to mention the freeway connector which for so long has cut off that area from the central core. I know the Mayor and others are working hard to evaluate all options for a ballpark location; my vote is for up near Railroad Park.

[Thanks to markj for the pic of the Tribeca Grand atrium in NYC; the News and Rabun Architects for the Westin rendering; the News for the Ballpark rendering)

Greening Birmingham

We’re at the Green Building Focus conference in Birmingham–come check out our booth! The vendor hall is free and open to the public at in the North Exhibition Hall of the BJCC starting 8:30 AM Wednesday and continuing Thursday.

Where do I go?

In the meantime I can’t help but illustrate how the lobby of the downtown Sheraton needs help. This lobby of the main hotel connected to the convention center has no visual focus. It’s a blur of beige tiles, brown paneling, more brown planters–and odd little angled reception desks hidden behind columns. This space is lacking in “visual hierarchy” , where elements and colors are carefully arranged in relation to one another to guide guests to the check-in, to the elevators, the ballrooms, etc.

In the 5 minutes I stood there, I saw at least 4 people looking bewildered, asking the bellman where to find elevators, wondering where to check in, etc.  This could be much, much easier with a change of materials, color, and orientation. OK, back to the conference! More on greening Birmingham shortly!